A Cooper 500 in Ceylon

500-c.c. racing has come to stay in this country and is spreading round the world. The Cooper is by far the most popular “500” and so many beginners are learning racing on these cars that this article, by a tyro who has raced one of these in Ceylon, is of more than usual interest and contains some useful hints and tips. — Ed.

One sultry evening last year I was thumbing through some motoring papers when my small son John, aged seven, dumped his copy on top of mine, with the inevitable remark: ” What’s this, Dad?” “This” was a drawing of a Cooper 500, complete with specification and write-up. Having explained patiently to John that it was not a super kiddie-car, I proceeded to digest the details, and with the thought “will the company play” in my mind, I went to work the next morning with the “gen” in my pocket.

The first step was to get my immediate boss interested. Obviously impressed, but murmuring something about “breaking your blinking neck,” he was persuaded to take the write-up to the managing director, and later in the day I was informed that the M.D. had written to his co-director, at that time on leave in England, asking him to visit the Cooper people, and make further inquiries. Many of our workshop staff looked up from their jobs in astonishment as I roared through the works in search of my colleague. “You know what,” I panted, “we might get a Cooper for Christmas!” Phil wanted to know if I had won the Irish Sweep ; I said ” No,” and proceeded to fill in the gaps.

At last came a cable from the company’s agents in London, “COOPER RACING CAR SHIPPED PER S.S … ” — Yes, it was just as easy as that, thanks to the generosity and sportsmanship of our directors. Needless to relate, Phil and I were on the dockside one day in January this year when she was swung up out of the lighter and dropped neatly and gently on the quay at our feet, while the crane operator grinned broadly from his cab.

I must explain here that Phil and I had both only been back to England since the war on brief demob. leave spells in the winters of ’45 and ’46, and neither of us had had the opportunity to acquire much information concerning the activities or products of such maestros as Father and John Cooper and their ilk.

Suffice to state that we learned by our mistakes! We burned up the first piston by using an inferior fuel, Methanol at that time not being obtainable in Ceylon, but even so, while the compression lasted, it was obvious that this was quite the most potent piece of motoring yet seen in the island. While we were scratching our heads over the fuel problem, Phil scraped up acquaintance with Dr. Lowe, the Director of Research at the Ceylon Government Department of Industries. Doc. Lowe was certainly a friend in need (we being the ones in need!). While we tenderly took Mr. Prestwich’s engine to pieces and salved its wounded pride with a new piston, Doc. Lowe got busy with his latest still and several gallons of “shell nap,” the product of the destructive distillation of Ceylon-grown coconut shells. Then he called us over to his laboratory to watch his final tests on twelve separate distillations. We all agreed on No. 12.

No. 12 was duly supplied in bulk, after our written assurance to the Excise Department that we were not going to drink the stuff, and the Cooper was carried almost secretly down to Ratmalana. Airport, our previous loss of face and compression still fresh in our minds!

The engine fired first push and off went the Cooper with an exhaust note that crackled as healthily as ever. All seemed well. After several more trial runs, during which we began to learn something of the technique of driving our newly-acquired challenger, we heard that the next race meeting was to be organised at Ratmalana Airport by the Ceylon Motor-Cycle Club at the beginning of April. On March 1st, Phil sailed with his wife for England on six months’ well-earned leave.

Sunday April 3rd, dawned hot and steamy, a typical pre-monsoon day, and after a seemingly interminable wait I eventually ran the Cooper up to the starting line in company with a pre-war Riley Nine special, a Ceylon-built job with a Zephyr engine, and an M.G. “TC” which had been attended to for the occasion. The course was roughly kidney-shaped, comprising part of the main runway and a rather narrow link road, 1.3 miles per lap.

The starter’s flag dropped and we were off, the Cooper showing a clean lead into the first and worst corner; round the link road, and back into the straight, with 7,000 r.p.m. on the clock. Turning off the straight I had a glimpse of the Zephyr thundering (it seemed to me on account of its size) up behind me. A little faster round the link road and into the straight again, and still “7,000” showing and a bit to spare on the throttle. Turning into the link road this time the Zephyr had dropped back quite a bit, but by the time I had swung into the straight again, it was evident that the “works” were gumming up more than somewhat-6,500 r.p.m. and no more. I changed down for the corner and the engine went out like a light.

As I cruised round the link road with the engine refusing to cut-in again, the Zephyr stormed past, followed by the Riley and the M.G., doing very nicely, thank you.

They finished in that order, a very satisfactory race for all concerned, with the exception of yours truly, who was towed ignominiously back to the paddock. However, the Cooper proved that she “had the makings” and had established a new lap record of 1 min. 11.4 sec. Then followed a frantic examination of the cylinder, but all was not lost and a steady lapping-in process was put in hand with the second and last of our spare pistons, sent out by air-freight after our original “blow-up.”

Meanwhile Phil had arrived in England and had gone into an urgent huddle with Coopers Senior and Junior. The net result was a cable which gave correct piston clearance and other advice on points on which we had not been quite clear previously.

With the engine in one piece again and back in the chassis and more advice by letter from Phil in my pocket, I careered off to Ratmalana once more. The officers in the control tower as usual gave permission to use their airport with a tolerant nod and a smile! The engine hit first push and sounded as healthy and good-tempered as ever. Several evenings of tinkering followed, getting timing, oil feeds and other adjustments correct, and then we were all set for the St. James Hill-Climb, 135 miles from Colombo at 4,500 feet above sea level, organised by the Ceylon Motor Sports Club on Easter Sunday.

I maintain that if Raymond Mays, Fry, or Bolster, could see the hill up to St. James’ Tea Estate, they would declare us “nuts”!

However, our hardworking committee decreed that this was it, so it behoved us to have a go. The course was 1,000 yards long, roughish tarmac surface, very narrow, with five hairpin, one right-angle and several mild bends, rising approximately 400 feet from start to finish. I climbed it first in my Morris Minor, next as a passenger in a “TC” M.G. (the driver of which had not been up the hill at all and depended upon me to show hint the corners!), and then in the Cooper, which clocked 1 min. 19 sec. After this effort I walked up to learn more about the whole affair.

On Easter Sunday morning we reported for duty, 30 competitors, including motorcyclists and drivers of standard, sports and racing cars. I was 29th on the programme and sweated whilst I tried to orientate those five hairpins !

At last the Cooper’s off-side front wheel stamped over the timing shoe and we were off. The course led up a mild incline for about 200 yards, with a nasty dog-leg half-way, which made me lift my right foot slightly from the flat-out position in second gear. Then came the left-hand corner, steep enough to remind, me to shift into first. Up into second for the curve through the tea bushes, and into first again for the hairpin No. 1. Second again, and looking for hairpin No. 2 – a glimpse of sand-bags, first gear and a left-hand hairpin completed on almost full right lock! A short spell in second, then back into first for hairpin bends Nos. 3 and 4, a right and a left very close together, then up into second for the long sweep through grassland to hairpin No. 5, Windy Corner. Fifty yards earlier than I expected I roared into Windy Corner still in second and travelling much too fast. I made most of the bend, standing on the brakes, banged out the clutch, and fished for the throttle to pick up the revs, as the car eased up to the bank. The gradient rolled us off the bank in reverse and I snapped into first gear for the blind to the finishing line. Time: 1 min. 23 sec. — not so clever! I made the second run later in the afternoon, having had a very close look at the road below Windy Corner, and after letting 2 lb. pressure out of the back tyres. time 1 min. 18.4 sec., best time of the day for cars, all classes, but beaten by two Triumph “Speed Twin” motor-cycles, which clocked 1 min. 16.4 sec. and 1 min. 16.8 sec., respectively.

However, I found consolation in the facts that (i) the Cooper behaved like a thoroughbred; (ii) subsequent examination of the engine confirmed that all was well, and (iii) that next year I shall be on leave and Phil will have the doubtful pleasure of “dicing” on St. James!

In the first week in August in Colombo we all go to town if we can. There are the Up-country v. Low-country rugger and cricket matches; the Governor-General’s Cup Race Meeting (horses only!), Rowing Club Regatta, Boxing Finals, Yacht Club Regatta and the Ceylon Motor-Cycle Club Championship Meeting, again at Ratmalana Airport.

By this time Phil had studied form by watching Spike Rhiando, Stirling Moss, John Cooper, Dryden and all the other 500-c.c. aces at Silverstone and Goodwood, and I pored over the photographs he sent out and got our “tin-bashers” on to re-designing our engine cover according to the latest “new-look.” Our original small scoops were removed from the leading edges of the bonnet and refitted to the trailing edges as extractors. Bigger scoops were fabricated and fitted to the front of the engine-cover, complete with deflector plates. These alterations may not be strictly correct aerodynamically but they certainly made a vast improvement to the engine cooling.

Several Sunday mornings were spent in practice runs, experimenting with jet sizes, oil feeds, engine sprockets, various types of plugs, lowered compression-ratio for maximum reliability rather than top performance, and tyre pressures. We eventually fixed on the following settings: carburetter jet: 1,500; oil feeds to valve gear: 30 drops per minute and to big-end 60 per minute; engine sprocket: 21 teeth; plug: KLG 689; compression-ratio: 13-to-1; ignition timing: 35 deg. b.t.d.c.; and tyre pressures: 11 lb. per sq. in. front, 13 lb. rear.

I often wonder what happens in England if a 500-c.c. class has to be run in rain or on a wet track. One Sunday morning at Ratmalana I was caught on the far side of the aerodrome in a typical S.W. moonsoon downpour. I drove the car across to one of the hangars and when the rain stopped I decided to have another run to see how she behaved on a wet track. The Cooper handled excellently but the engine soon began to misfire, and became progressively worse until “flames began to shoot out of the exhaust pipe,” to quote one of the onlookers. We stripped the engine right down during the course of that week and found water everywhere. I then had a pair of stout canvas hoods made to shield the leading ventilators in the engine cover from the water thrown up by the front wheels of the car. So far I have not had to use these hoods, but I would like to hear about any similar precautions that Cooper drivers in England take against the possibility of rain on race day.

The Coopers’ turn-out now came in for its share of attention. The body is finished in royal-blue, suspension and etceteras in red, with the wheel rims and air scoops and extractors buffed and polished. We found that the inside of the original fuel tank had become very rusty and corroded, and our tinsmiths made a new tank of copper which was chemically cleaned in our plating department before the sections were brazed together.

The next Ratmalana meeting was scheduled for August 7th, and the monsoon rain persisted right up to the end of July, but within the first two or three days of August the rain gave way to the odd light shower and bright sunshine, and the shade temperature soared up into the nineties. “Der Tag” dawned bright and clear and the main road to Ratmalana reverberated to the exhaust notes of motor-cycles and sports cars “hotted-up” for the occasion. The tang of Castrol R was in the air and last minute bets were laid in rupees on the course.

The 350-c.c. and 500-c.c. motor-cycle races were run off and some very creditable performances were put up. The standard of motor-cycle racing in Ceylon is, in my humble opinion, very good indeed and I take off my hat to the boys who race on two wheels. Then came the two stock-car races, with a break during which the crowd of some four to five thousand had to clear the course while an Air-Ceylon Dakota took off on its routine trip to India. The sports car class, all M.G.s on this occasion, came to the line next and this race was, as usual, not without its quota of excitement and spectacle. Finally we were marshalled for the racing car class, a disappointing field mainly owing to the lack of fast cars and spares for the few there are in the Island. Nevertheless this was what the customers wanted, and two M.G.s, our old friend the Zephyr, and the very successful Cooper toed the line.

We went off to a good start and, as before, the Cooper led into the first corner. Thereafter the Zephyr sat on the Cooper’s tail for three laps but centrifugal force eventually put the Zephyr into a violent spin. The driver fought his way out of the excitement and proceeded to “dice” with the nearest M.G. for second place, while the Cooper went on to win the 6-lap race at a canter, putting up a lap record of 1 min. 10 sec. (66.86 m.p.h.) for the short 1 1/2-mile course. A question raised in the Ceylon House of Parliament regarding a mishap which occurred during this meeting in one of the stock-car races has put a temporary stop to racing at Ratmalana, but I am sure this difficulty will be overcome. No loss of life was involved and better organiation will undoubtedly eliminate the possibility of a recurrence of incidents of this nature.

The fact remains that, with a little more encouragement from the authorities, motor-cycle and car racing has a good future in Ceylon, in which I believe that “specials” of the same breed as the Cooper will play a leading part.

Already plans are in course of preparation for a Boxing Day meeting under the auspices of the Ceylon Motor Sports Club. The motor-cycle “aces” are raising cornpressions and polishing ports, and with luck we shall see at least one more Cooper entering the lists in the racing car class, and the return of our old friends the Riley and the Magpie.